10 Tactics to Recover from Your Traumatic Past
We all want a clean slate. It would be nice to have been raised in a perfect home. To have never faced evil. To have picked the perfect spouse. To have heeded wisdom. To have run instead of stayed. To die at an old age without facing heinous evil.
But most of us don’t have these luxuries. They have changed us. Our traumas serve as indisputable evidence for us that life isn’t fair. But these traumas are not proof that we have been defeated, crushed, and ruined.
Can trauma irrevocably change us? Yes. Can we become even better than we might have been in spite of its disastrous effects? Yes. Here are 11 tactics to do so.
1. Take Note of Your Triggers
Trauma usually reappears in the lives of survivors through portal-events. These events subconsciously resonate with the traumatic memory and cause an emotional reaction. We call this occurrence, in which a traumatic event disrupts the present, a “trigger.” We are often more aware of the reaction than the portal-event.
Your spouse insults you. Your boss critiques you. Your friend betrays you. A scent. A sound. And the result? Disproportionate anger. Consuming anxiety. Nuclear rage. The trigger will be unpredictable. That’s why it’s important to take notes about your reactions. Ask yourself: “What event took me from a 0 to a 10? How did I go from calm to The Hulk?”
When you are triggered into state of dissociation or overwhelm, as yourself: what happened? What was the inciting event? Note that event. That’s a trigger.
Your trigger could be a certain genre of music. A certain kind of relationship. A certain activity—reading books, watching T.V., or a certain hobby.
Then, as you progress in your journey, you can experiment with gradually exposing yourself to that trigger in small doses to practice disarming the emotional bomb. But the first and most important thing to do is take notes. Instead of numbing the pain or judging yourself, ask: “What just happened? Why?” After shootings, police are required to fill out “Lesson learned” reports. Don’t judge the event. Record it.
2. Take Your Triggers in Stride
It’s very tempting, after you’ve been triggered into an alcohol binge, or an emotional outburst, or a state of numbness, to feel like you don’t have any control over your brain or your body.
This sense of feeling out of control mirrors the traumatic experience itself. It can cause a sense of despair—“Will I ever be better? Or will I be hanging by my fingernails onto sanity for the rest of my life?”
Don’t give into that voice of despair. Keep taking notes. Remember: Things do get better. The memory of evil never fully disappears, once it’s been remembered. But you can learn to master it.
It’s not fair that you have to develop these competencies in order to master the effects of evil on your mind and on your life and on your relationships. But you must. So just like learning a skill, take each challenge as an opportunity to practice getting a little bit better at one thing. Like any skill, it only comes with practice. So take it in stride.
3. Write Your Story
It’s important for you to create physical and textual artifacts of your trauma. There are several methods you can use to achieve different vantage points on your trauma.
Pick one day on which a traumatic or abusive situation occurred, and write about yourself from a 3rd person perspective. Write about it like a journalist. Don’t moralize or judge. Just describe. This is called “Writing Therapy.”
After you’ve journalistically sketched the data of the day, sketch the day as a narrative. Who are the main characters? What are the main themes? If this day were an episode of a T.V. show, what would be the title? What would be the primary emotions and motivations of these characters? What backstories could you explore to enrich the outside observer’s understanding of the situation? This is called “Narrative therapy.”
Then, use those themes and characters as lenses to understand your current life and struggles. Were there certain themes? For example, when I was a child, my dad would pick up my sister and I from my mom’s house. About 50% of the time, my dad and I would get in a screaming match about some insignificant thing. And then, he’d stop the car in the middle of the highway, throw my bags on the side of the road, push me out of the car, and drive away.
Now, it’s not a coincidence that when I fight with my wife, 95% of the time, it’s when we’re in the car. What themes can you draw out? What set pieces elucidate your current triggers and struggles? This is called “Existential therapy.”
So, use that sequence—journalistic description of your past, narrative construal of that journalistic data, and existential application. If you give it a sincere shot, you’ll gain a lot of insight.
4. Share Your Story with a Friend
As you construct an understanding of your past and present self, share it with a friend who will listen compassionately.
Even if you have a best friend that you trust, but that person usually gives a lot of advice and feedback, you might want to consider sharing it with someone else. Share it with a good listener who cares about you.
Share it with someone who you know exhibits compassionate qualities so that you don’t cast your pearls before swine.
On this same note, the first person you share this story with should be someone who wasn’t involved in the original trauma, or in the current dramatic unfolding of your post-traumatic experience.
Find someone who cares about you who can also remain objective as they listen to your story. This will give their statements of encouragement some credibility—this credibility will be an anchor when you find your own evaluations of your trauma and yourself untrustworthy.
5. Share Your Story with Someone Who Understands
After you’ve shared your story with someone who cares about you, find someone who has experienced something similar, and share it with them. Ask what tools they have found helpful for processing these themes.
The first time I did this, the person I shared it with encouraged me to collect as many physical artifacts from the time of my traumatic experience so that I could utilize them for growth and transition—I burned some of them, and I framed others. But it was crucial for me to get that insight of attaining physical artifacts to help ground and bear witness to the reality of my experience.
Sharing your story with other people who have experienced the same thing will help you to learn what you don’t know that you need to learn about post-traumatic recovery.
6. Don’t Let Privileged People Minimize Your Trauma
When I was in seminary for my master’s degree, a doctoral student took me under his wing to mentor me. But when I started sharing my story with him, he told me I needed to go to church, clean the toilets, and submit to pastoral authority so that I could learn life wasn’t all about me, and that God ordained all the evil and suffering in the world for his glory, and we should be happy about that.
It was a good lesson that I needed to learn—don’t bear intimate details to people who get off on bossing you around. That experience wasn’t his fault. It was necessary for me to learn that I am the only one who can narrate the details of my story. Lesson learned.
From then on, I had to distinguish between “safe people” and “unsafe people.” That distinction can be weaponized to ostracize people who really are safe from your life. That happens with a lot of trauma survivors. It creates isolation.
But equally dangerous is the inability to distinguish sheep from wolves. In order to survive in your post-traumatic life, you must be able to make this distinction among the people in your life.
7. Don’t Let a Victim Mentality Hijack Equanimity
On the other hand, there is a sense in which identifying as a victim can perpetuate and exaggerate the original suffering that occurred. Making contact with dark memories and emotions can become intoxicating, and can yield a sense of entitlement to the compassion and attention of others.
Don’t let that happen. The goal of recovery from trauma is to become a person who can perform self-care, love for neighbors, and achieve a relative sense of peacefulness in life.
There is usually an initial season, when you first learn the term “trauma” that a sense of one’s victimhood is appropriate. But as time moves on, this sense of victimhood should become a descriptive tool, rather than a descriptive one—a way to explain what has happened, rather than as a vision for what ought to happen next.
Don’t let your awareness of the fact that you have been harmed yield a sense of entitlement that forces everyone around you to accommodate your feeling hurt. Try to be as normal, giving, and un-entitled as you possibly can while facilitating your own recovery. Strive for generosity and selflessness as well as a sense of self.
The opposite of victimhood isn’t entitlement. It’s equanimity. If your identity as a trauma survivor produces more anger than peace, reevaluate the goals of the label. Equanimity. Strength of self. A fortitude of one’s inner self.
These realities don’t try to rectify every little wrong someone transgresses against you, but can learn to forgive. Impulsivity and entitlement are the fruit of a weakening mind, not a strengthening one.
8. Celebrate Every Victory You Can
You will experience an inordinate preoccupation with your own failures. You will often feel like life is simply a series of failures, one after the other, amassing evidence for the fact that you must be judged.
Consequently, all of life can become about fulfilling this sense of self-hatred about one’s failures, or disproving it.
The only way you can proactively escape this losing battle with failure is to celebrate the wins. A small moment of patience. An afternoon with friends. An act of selflessness. Tally them up. Give yourself credit for being a good person.
9. Find a Compelling Purpose
Search for a mission that compels you beyond recovery from trauma. Find a tribe, a cause, a concept, a group, a hobby, a virtue, a skill. Pursue it with everything you’ve got. Make it something embodied. Make it something tactile.
Find your mission and devote your energies to that. Otherwise, you’ll get stuck in a hurricane of therapeutic self-obsession.
Most therapists would be happy to see you week-in and week-out for the next 20 years. That’s $5,000 per year in their pocket.
Don’t give into that. Find something higher to pursue.
Use therapy as an ancillary tool that facilitates getting back to real life, not building a new life based on a traumatic identity.
10. If You’re Addicted to a Substance, Join a Group
You can’t fix yourself by yourself.
Most trauma survivors struggle with addiction of some kind, mainly because addiction mitigates emotional overwhelm. If you have indulged in your addiction at least twice per week for the past year, it’s time to find a group that focuses on achieving sobriety.
If you often drink alone, compulsively binge in pornography, buy black market opioids, or take weekly trips to the casino, you need to find a group. Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, etc.
Make time for your group and go. Your future self will thank you.